Narco-Trauma: The Phenomenology of Post-Traumatic Stress among Binational Students at the Border.

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The so-called drug war that has intensified in Mexico since 2008 is characterized by extreme violence and civil insecurity. Upwards of 60,000 Mexican citizens have been murdered, some with unimaginable brutality, their mutilated bodies on public display. One hundred thousand homes and ten thousand businesses have been abandoned in Ciudad Juárez alone as families flee to the United States. A “spillover effect” on the collective border psyche dampens the vibrant border culture, as nightlife and tourism shut down in Juárez, and trauma follows refugees and commuters into the United States. The hijacking of the control over violence by legitimated and non-legitimated entities that enjoy near-total impunity has led to a continuing deterioration of the Mexican social fabric. The appropriation of the public space, including social media, as a transnational canvas on which to market violent acts, creates an environment in which the only safe space is the privacy of the self. El Paso, Texas, one of the safest cities in the United States, is barely 100 yards away from Ciudad Juárez, linked by an international bridge, by deep-rooted family ties, and a binational metropolitan culture now damaged by conflict. Many families in the border area, especially the families of students at the University of Texas (UTEP), live in a precarious and unhappy liminality, commuting in both directions across a political threshold every day to work and school, or traversing the “violent geography” (Gregory 2011) to visit family and friends. In this mixed methods paper, I present original research, supported by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and the Hispanic Health Disparities Research Center at UTEP. Using the results of two mental health surveys, I document the phenomenological consequences of the drug war on 240 border university students. Although survey results indicate elevated symptomatology for post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety, narratives collected from participants tell a slightly different story, one of resilience. This research supports the notion that post-traumatic stress disorder is culturally mediated, its phenomenology rather more slippery than can be captured through symptom analysis.

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